March 10, 2012

Free Speech Zone, Sarasota

Two weeks ago, Chris Young was arrested after drawing on the sidewalk with chalk. The ACLU held a rally at the site of the arrest to highlight our rights to free speech as enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Consitution. During that rally, I met a man who called himself the four-year-mayor of Five Points Park. He explained that the police regularly give out trespass warnings to people who hang around the Park and the sidewalks in the vicinity. Specifically, people are trespassed from the steps leading down from the library, Five Points Park, and the sidewalk leading from Starbucks to Whole Foods. Once trespassed, they may not return to that area for a year or risk arrest!

This sounded like it might be a bit of an exageration to me. But, then I thought about how folks participating in Occupy Sarasota had been treated. They make use of the same space. Three Occupiers had been trespassed for holding signs and peacefully protesting on the sidewalk. And Chris Young had been trespassed after writing chalk slogans in a public park.

During last week's Occupy Sarasota rally, the police were called to Five Points Park, not once, but twice. The first call was a complaint about a group performing Capoiera, a Brazilian martial art mixed with music. The second complaint was about a couple of people from the National Eating Disorder Association who were handing out leaflets on the topic from a couple of tables they had set up. As a disinterested observer, my take was that this was truly an optimal use of public space in a downtown area. They brought culture and knowledge to those who were interested, and otherwise did not get in anyone's way.

I spoke at length with one police officer who responded to these calls. He echoed my thoughts, and went further to disparage the complainant. Evidently, the complainer was the same person who also regularly calls in complaints about Occupy Sarasota. I believe that this man complains regularly about anyone whom he does not wish to see using Five Points Park or the sidewalks in the vicinity. Interestingly, he does not call the police department to make these complaints, but rather he calls a particular Lieutenant, who then has Dispatch send officers out to the scene. The more I inquired, the fishier it got. What I would like to know, is how much this man has cost the City of Sarasota in bogus complaints. Is it possible that we staff extra police officers just to satisfy the whims of this one man? Somebody please investigate!

As it turns out, the Sarasota ACLU was already on one piece of the puzzle. They sent a letter to City Manager Terry Lewis. The ACLU was concerned that "police are reportedly issuing trespass warnings to vagrants who loiter too long on the sidewalk." Several days later, City Attorney Robert Fournier said the "Police should not 'trespass' anyone on the highly contentious sidewalks located around the downtown Whole Foods store." The ACLU scores a victory.

Occupy Sarasota held it's rally today and decided to celebrate the City's reversal with an impromptu protest march down the sidewalk in question. It was a small group, but what they lacked in size, they made up for in enthusiasm. They look at this piece of the sidewalk as a newly declared Free Speech Zone -

In the ultimate irony, as Occupy Sarasota marched through downtown, they stumbled upon two sets of chalk slogans on Main Street, both welcoming customers into their business.

Evidently chalk writing is okay with the police, if Toy Lab or Yume Sushi creates it in front of their storefront, but not okay if it is in Five Points Park. Or, maybe it is okay if it encourages consumerism, but not okay if it encourages dissent. Or, maybe it's just not okay if that one guy in the condo complains to that one police lieutenant and a particular officer is dispatched. I think all of it should be okay. Continue the investigations.

Occupy Sarasota's First Arrest, ACLU Chalk Rally, Police target homeless based on looks, ACLU says, Sarasota Herald Tribune, March 7, 2012, City attorney to police: Stop issuing 'trespass' notices, Sarasota Herald Tribune, March 9, 2012

1 comment:

  1. There's an interesting high school civics experiment in there somewhere.